Why do you care?

Bird Hierarchy

Sometimes people ask me why I care about other people’s marriages. Why do I make “such a big fuss” about complementarianism? Isn’t how we do marriages a personal decision? Aren’t there happy and healthy complementarian marriages? When people practice complementarian marriages “right” aren’t they good marriages?

Well. Yes. To all of that. But.

As I have said before, when a man is in charge of how fully a woman can participate in her relationship or marriage – when he has the authority to tell her, “You cannot make this decision. You need to stop fighting me on this and just do what I say,” that is DANGEROUS for women. Power imbalances are dangerous, and complementarianism has such a power imbalance as its foundation. Complementarism says, “Husbands lead. Wives follow. No matter what.”

Some people say, “Well, a Christian husband should be loving. And a women never has to follow a man into sin. So it’s not really dangerous.”

Can a complementarian woman REALLY say no?

In preparation for following a husband, girls are often raised with lots and lots of training in quieting our hearts and obeying. We are trained in not making fusses, in making a man feel good, in making him feel respected, in silencing our own inner voices and dying to ourselves and doing what we are told (aka, following his leadership). When we feel that our man is making a mistake, we are told, it is not our responsibility. Our responsibility is to support him in the decisions he makes. When we feel that our husband is making a wrong decision for our family, we are told, it is rebellious and prideful to try to force our way; rather we must humble ourselves and trust our man. When our men want something, including sex, it is our responsibility to do whatever we can do to give it to them, even if we don’t want to. Even if it hurts us. We are taught that the worst thing we can do is make our man *feel* like we are disrespecting him (regardless of whether or not we do respect him — we must do whatever it takes to make our particular man FEEL respected in every situation, whatever that requires). Even outside the church, girls are brought up this way. This teaching is pervasive – it is in churches, schools, colleges, college groups, books, magazines, movies, websites, blogs – wherever Christians gather, this teaching is there.

It’s intensified when women start dating or enter premarital counseling. Because, and I stress, complementarian girls are taught to treat boyfriends this way, too. In preparation of the marriage which will hopefully happen. Women who are new to the church and were not brought up this way are quickly told to fall in line, because this is the way GOD wants us to live in our relationships. And who is a mere human to argue with God?

We are NOT taught to critically evaluate a man’s choices. We are not taught how to say, “No.” We are not taught about how to insist that he pay attention to what we are saying. We are not taught to listen to our own minds and what God is speaking to us and follow THAT. We are not taught that our needs and desires are just as important to respect as his. We are not taught that we are the equals of men, that we can be adults who are smart and responsible enough to have equal say in how our families are run, and that upon marrying we will be entering into a partnership.

Think about that! Girls, especially Christian complementarian girls, are not brought up to expect to have a governing role in our own lives! Women are taught to expect to have a husband who will “take care of us” – ie, provide for all our needs and tell us what is best for us and our children. Because “your husband will know what’s best and once he decides, that’s it – even if you disagree, you must stop arguing and put all your support behind him.”

Given the imbalanced training received, how is a woman, especially one who has always been raised this way and practiced these disciplines in her relationships, supposed to just suddenly know how to speak up? How is she supposed to tell when she should speak up and when she should continue shutting up? With so little practice, how is she supposed to know when and how to say “NO!” if her man (seems to be maybe) leading her into sin?

Well, the truth is that she usually doesn’t. Especially when she’s either very young and inexperienced or when she has spent many years practicing her “submissive” behavior. If a woman does not know how or when to stand up and refuse to follow and if she doesn’t believe that she is worthy of doing so, she is completely vulnerable to whatever man she is with. I hope that I do not have to cite anything for my reader to understand why that is dangerous.

Does a complementarian man REALLY have all the power?

When a woman is completely vulnerable like this, the man has all the power. Indeed this is what we find in complementarian marriages. Some of these marriages are funtionally egalitarian. These are the ones held up as “ideal,” as “true complementarianism,” as a “right reading of Scripture.” The husbands give the wives equal say (or almost equal — they usually call it a 51/49 split). They take turns submitting. They share work, child care and chore responsibilities (in whatever ratios work for them). Things work well! Everyone is happy and healthy.

But even in these couples, it is up to the man how long it stays like this. He has the ability to say, “No… this is not working for me any more. From now on, I’m going to be making all of the decisions about [insert area of life here]. And that’s it. As a wife who believes in one sided submission, she is now responsible to cede all the power in that area of life (and whatever other areas he decides to run alone) to her husband. So we see that the husband has all the power about how much say the wife is going to have in her family. If her husband’s theology changes in this area, she has no choice but to follow.

So even in the best case scenario, husbands in complementarian marriages have more power. The balance of power is unequal in the relationship. What happens in relationships with unequal balances of power?

I’m betting you know. But I’ll dive into it in the next post. For this post, it is enough to establish that complementarianism, by definition, establishes a power imbalance.

Published by Nikki Holland

I am a Quaker wife, mother, pastor, and writer. I work as the country branch director of a fabulous NGO in Belize City and I recently graduated with an MDiv from Earlham School of Religion. I love my family, and I love my community.

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